We don’t act old. We don’t feel old. We’re busy, we try to keep in shape. But as seniors we have our own dietary requirements. Why? Think of our metabolism as running just a bit slower now, needing fewer calories. Think too of our energy needs. Being active at any age requires an input of energy-producing carbohydrates and fats, but with a slower metabolism, we need fewer of those sources of calories.
Our protein needs have changed too. We’re certainly not growing, and even if we workout every day, we’re not bulking up. Of course we need to replace and repair muscle tissue, so the quality and digestibility of the protein we need is higher. Seniors also need good protein to keep our autoimmune systems functioning.
But with our slowing metabolism we need fewer calories to avoid weight gain. If we keep eating the same amount, even if we keep active and exercise, our weight will slowly go up. Exercise helps us in numerous physical and psychological ways but by itself, exercise won’t shrink that waistline. Why? Our metabolic rate stays about the same each day, so if we burn a few hundred extra calories at the fitness center, our metabolism will slow down to maintain the same calorie burn day after day. In summary, If we want to lose weight, we need to eat less. No way around it.
Is There An Ideal Diet For Seniors? Yes.
Active seniors do best when we improve the quality, healthiness and digestibility of the foods we eat. Regardless of how active we are, diet can affect our health. Especially our cardiovascular health. So we are bombarded with new (and old) recommendations for the best diet.
Where to begin? Here’s the simple answer: Among all the diets and dietary choices, there is one recommended by a majority of physicians, cardiologists and dietitians. It’s logical, it’s easy to follow. And you’ve heard of it…The Mediterranean Diet. The health and longevity of Mediterranean basin residents over the long haul is testimony to this diet’s effectiveness, when combined with weight control and an active lifestyle. It’s even rated “The #1 Diet” by U.S. News & World Reports.
The Mediterranean Diet generally includes whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, olive oil, and fish. Plus, optionally, red wine.
Something missing? Meat and dairy. But if these are important to you, go ahead, but not too often, take smaller portions, and keep the meat lean. More about dairy later.
Getting To Know The Mediterranean Diet
Grains & Beans Pack Protein (& Fiber)
The Mediterranean diet gives serious attention to whole grains, cereals and beans (also called legumes) in your diet. Switch from white bread, and white flour pasta to whole grains, which retain the fiber, minerals and other nutrients that are stripped out of white grains. Skip processed cereals for oatmeal. Same goes for rice – bypass white for brown or dark, unpolished rice. BTW, when selecting breads, multigrain does not mean whole grain. Read the labels!
Beans come in a wide range of colors but are similar in nutritional values. Choose from black beans, pinto, kidney, white cannelloni, and chickpeas. Consider lentils, one of the few that can cook in less than an hour. Most beans require an overnight soaking, but you may take advantage of canned beans, which are precooked.
Nuts & Seeds: Surprisingly Beneficial
Peanuts, cashews, walnuts, almonds, pecans and pistachios are a great source of plant protein, plus vitamins, minerals and both mono and polyunsaturated fats. Nuts also contain plant sterols, credited with blocking cholesterol absorption. Flax seeds, especially roasted, are delicious as well as a great source of heart-healthy Omega 3 fatty acids and lignans. Same for Chia seeds. Sprinkle flax or chia on cereals, salads, yogurt, but use small amounts because these little seeds are high in calories.
Fruits and Vegetables: Confirming What We Know
You’ve probably heard this: Vegetables and fruits provide necessary vitamins and minerals, as well as being a great source of “good carbs,” for energy, and fiber to aid digestion. Have a salad every day and you’ll be meeting many of the requirements. Plus, try to have steamed green vegetables; don’t like broccoli? – okay, go for kale, spinach, string beans, Brussels sprouts, asparagus and peas. Add some yellow or orange veggies – carrots, yellow zucchini, yellow peppers and sweet potatoes. Avocados have increased in popularity, not just for great taste and texture, but because they contain beneficial monounsaturated oil and folate.
Have an apple for dessert or snack. Or, an orange, a melon, a pear, even a few prunes or dried apricots (but watch out for the calories with dried fruits). The whole fruit is more beneficial than juice alone unless all the fiber-laden pulp is included.
Olive Oil: The Truth About Fats (we need them)
Fats, including oils, are an essential element of nutrition. All people, including seniors, need to consume fats for energy storage, to support cell growth and produce hormones. But we need the right kind – the ones that do not contribute to cholesterol and plaque build-up in our arteries. For cooking, and on salads, cardiologists recommend monounsaturated olive oil especially, and polyunsaturated oils like soybean, sunflower, corn oil.
The fats to reduce or avoid are saturated fats, like those found in meats and certain dairy products like whole milk, butter and cheese.
Just be aware that olive oil and all fats and oils contain more than twice the calories of carbs and proteins, so use moderation when you “pour it on.”
Fish: High In Protein Plus Healthy Fats
A mainstay of the Mediterranean Diet, fish – especially salmon, albacore tuna, halibut, mackerel, sardines – are ideal for active seniors. These coldwater fish tend to be high in healthy fats, rich in Omega3 acids – proven to lower cholesterol as well as combating free radicals.
Fresh fish is ideal but canned isn’t bad. A single serving of canned albacore tuna provides 20 grams of protein; a can of sardines provides 23 grams of protein. Water-packed is milder and lower in calories, but try packed in olive oil for a richer, even healthier serving.
Red Wine: An Encouraging But Mixed Message
According to the Mayo Clinic and other respected medical authorities, red wine contains an antioxidant or polyphenol called resveratrol, which may reduce risks of heart disease by raising levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, which carries away “bad” LDL cholesterol.
Doctors urge caution and moderation here, and suggest women hold it to one glass daily, and men, two glasses.
What About Dairy?
If you haven’t already switched to low-fat or no-fat milk and yogurt, it’s a good time to do so now. You’ll get the same high quality protein, plus Vitamin D, which we seniors need for strong bones, but without the high levels of saturated fats. Just be sure to steer towards yogurts with little or no added sugar.
Greek yogurt has become popular and is a good choice for active seniors Some of the liquid is drained out during processing and the result is higher protein per cup. Greek yogurt tends to be mild, less acidic too.
Can We Eat Eggs?
The verdict is in and eggs are recommended. One a day is a good quota. One egg is only 60 calories yet gives us 6 grams of nutritionally-complete protein while being low in saturated fats. Yes, an egg contains cholesterol, but below the recommended allowance. In contrast, be careful with cheese, which tends to be high in saturated fat.
How To Lower Carbohydrates
I’d like to conclude with an important suggestion for better health and weight control: We need to cut back on sugar.
Why? Seniors do not need the excess, empty calories that sugar contains. In fact, nobody does. All processed sugars, and that includes raw sugar, brown sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, agave nectar contain little or no nutrition beyond a few trace minerals. Think of sugar as a concentrated chemical that your body easily stores as fat. The naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables – glucose, fructose – are assimilated and used by our bodies gradually, as needed, and provide all the energy-supplying carbs we need.
Here’s a small bonus: If you can completely remove sugar from your diet, within a few weeks, naturally sweet foods, fruits especially, will taste sweeter and more flavorful. Worth giving it a try!
Wrapping Up: Let’s Transition To Mediterranean
The successful way to adopt the Mediterranean Diet is to transition; start it now – today – but take it in stages. Adding vegetables to your daily routine is easy, and if you start your dinner meal with a large salad, you’ll not only get the nutritional benefits, you’ll also be practicing “volumetrics” which means filling up on healthy, bulky, but low calorie food. The result: Your higher-calorie main course will become smaller. Dessert may become optional.
Once you switch over to whole grains you’ll discover what you’ve been missing: Taste and texture. You will feeler better knowing you are eating healthier, avoiding “empty calories” while reawakening long dormant taste buds. Fish should show up on your plate twice a week – that’s not hard! – and you can vary it, grilled or poached salmon one evening, a tuna sandwich (on whole grain bread, of course) at a lunch.
Start enjoying an egg every day and gradually ease away from doughnuts, fried foods, and everything with sugar. In no time, you won’t miss them, and your health, fitness and waistline will thank you.
The Mayo Clinic provides a good summary at:
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